Posted by: Gillian | March 16, 2009

What’s a PhD?

Are all PhDs the same?  What’s a terminal degree?  Can I do a distance PhD? Does my first degree count?  Several recent queries have led to me writing roughly the same core reply along with some more focused information so here is a quick summary.

1 Are all PhDs the same?

Short answer: no.  I remember my complete amazement, not to mention inappropriate hilarity, when I first discovered most US PhDs are taught!  As in, go to class!  That was a far cry from my (then) knowledge of a UK system where a supervisor was found in an often complex two-way courtship and research undertaken with, in bad cases, the near absence of the said carefully located supervisor.  Today, the US-taught and UK-research divide is not quite so strong but the original reason for the difference still affects entry criteria.  As a guide, the broader your lower-level education, the more teaching your PhD programme will require.  The eventual aim is for you to ‘know a lot about a little’.  You may, like me, find that a rather depressing aim but there’s nothing to stop you learning things outside the programme!

2 What’s a terminal degree?

You can make up your own jokes for this one.  A terminal degree is the highest level degree that you can reach in your specific discipline and is frequently the requirement in job applications for university professors – partly because of independent accreditation requirements.  The trouble is, in some subjects the goal posts keep moving as academia and the world develop.  For example,  in the 1980s an MBA was either a pre-experience academic degree from a ‘modern’ university (plenty of academic snobbery to be understood) or an executive-MBA that (whisper it) often allowed people with experience but no degree to participate despite what it said in the brochures.  By the 1990s, an executive-MBA from the top universities was very much sought after and much good research was being done – but the universities could not hang on to the best researchers partly because they could not compete with the remuneration available in industry and partly because the MBA was the top of the academic tree which sat uncomfortably with the Doctorates and PhDs. (See next para!) Not surprisingly, the DBA was invented – but was that really academic and did it ‘count’ and did this mean those successful exec-MBAs now teaching in universities needed to take another degree?  You get the point.

Also, people understandably confuse the various ‘doctorate’ titles.  One otherwise authoritative US site says “PhD (known by the Brits as a D.Phil)”.  Um, no!  The “Brits” – and Australians and others – have both types.  There are PhDs and D…..  and one can progress from a PhD to a Doctorate.  This progression always was rare but it is now heading for dinosaur status – albeit, highly respected dinosaurs.  The broadening of access means that in popular parlance a PhD is the top of the tree.  But what, some squeak in indignation, of the applied doctorates such as the Ed.D and D.Eng?  That is, the PD or Professional Doctorate in Bologna terms.  These are degrees that are usually followed by people with vast amounts of experience, who are employed and who have high levels of natural curiosity/research.  The resulting award is meant to be both equivalent to a PhD and, simultaneously, not an academic research qualification.  At this point, feel free to look confused.  Interestingly, from a lifelong learning point of view, the official websites make no mention I can find of PhDs being equivalent to professional doctorates.

The practical conclusion from this section is that if you are older and do not want to teach in a university, an applied doctorate may suit you very well.  If you do want to teach in a university, be aware that you may still need to keep on proving that vast experience and excellent research are acceptable to accrediting authorities – which may be roughly the position you are in at the moment.

3 Can I do a distance PhD?

Of course!  What’s more, if you apply a more flexible definition of ‘normal PhD’ you might find all sorts of opportunities in non-taught or minimally-taught PhD system.  Budget airlines exist for reasons other than holidays.

For ideas about which unis might suit you best, post here or contact me on LinkedIn.  All responses are based on experience and are subjective so do your own research as well.

4 Does my first degree count?

Yes.  And no.  All the literature says it matters.  Any admissions officer worth their salt and, equally importantly, any potential supervisor worth their salt, knows that the academic rules have shifted over the decades.  My advice: if you are over 35 and have solid experience plus evidence of research, just ask but be prepared for front-desk rule-itis.  If you are under 35, think about your country of origin and your country of application.

Enough for one post.  Thoughts, comments and next questions?


  1. I feel that this is a useful article. I’m a masters student considering getting a PhD, and I find that I know very little about the subject because I haven’t been deeply involved in the academic world. Some of the things schools often assume everyone knows are really quite a mystery to potential students, especially those coming from other countries.

    • Thanks, Ann. Let’s keep ‘talking’. I now know a bit more about your background and interests so – to the future!

  2. Quite an interesting article. While I have no plans to pursue (at this time) a further degree, it’s good to know there are possibilities.

    • Hello Julie,
      Thanks for visiting. Keep in touch. Have you got a blog of your own?

  3. Very interesting article! I fall into the “over 35 with solid experience” category. I work in HE managing projects with a significant research input and for some time now having been thinking it’s time for me to take the plunge and do a PhD myself. Working in France, I feel I have to choose between a distance PhD from a UK university or a more traditional form here in France. Issues of time and cost also need to be solved, so any information on funding opportunities for non-UK residents would be welcome!

    • Hi Deborah,
      Thanks for your comment and query. I’ll drop you a line separately but have you considered a professional doctorate? That might work better in terms of time management and can build into and upon your current work. Funding opportunities should normally be open to all EU residents equally – but I’ll see what I can find.

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